29 January 2021

Dear Parents, Carers & Students,

Perhaps the most important role that anyone takes on in life is that of being a parent. Unlike many jobs, there is very limited training in advance and each child is different, meaning that experience gained with one child is of little use when trying to support another. In last week’s update I referenced John F Kennedy, who perhaps didn’t have the best parental role models. His wife Jackie Kennedy suggested that, ‘If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.’ Whether that’s true is a matter of opinion, but I think every parent or carer reading this will have had moments when they feel that they let their child down, or will feel anxious because they can’t resolve a problem that a child is encountering. Therefore, my update this week really is for parents and carers. Most of our communication is rightly based around the young people in our community, but it is important to acknowledge that this is a really difficult time to be responsible for children; parenting is even more of a challenge at present. This week alone I have read reports on the declining mental health of girls, the dangers of online grooming since March 2020, the impact of Covid-19 on the most disadvantaged children in the UK and the impact of remote learning on concentration, eyesight and sense of isolation.

Concerns grow for children’s health as screen times soar during Covid crisis – The Guardian, 22nd January 2021

The fact that the Prime Minister has referenced these points this week and has suggested the need for some form of future national education plan makes it clear that we are nearing a consensus on the need for increased support for young people. If supportive action develops from that consensus, then brilliant. But that doesn’t make it any easier to be a parent right now. Here are some anxieties that I’m sure many of you will have felt for a long time, but will have been more pronounced since January:

  • How much is my child missing their friends?
  • Am I spending enough quality time with my children?
  • Will they develop long standing bad habits?
  • Are they falling behind in their school work?
  • Are they spending too much time online?
  • Will they get the grades that they need for their next steps?
  • Am I letting my worries affect them?
  • Am I letting them down?
  • What problems are being stored up for their coming years?

The reason I’m fairly confident that these things will be on your mind, is that they are on my mind and the minds of staff at Durham Johnston too. We have those same concerns for our classes and tutees, but many of us are also parents, with children across the age range. Many staff have children at primary school, in exam years and at university. Being a parent at present is very difficult and we can only do our best given the circumstances that we find ourselves in.

When we have contacted some families this week it has become apparent that parents are struggling too. We are focusing on student well-being on Monday, but please consider your own well-being in the days ahead also. If you read through the above questions again it is clear that not one of us could answer those questions with confidence right now. From my conversations with parents and carers it is clear that you are trying very hard and doing all that you can. That is enough. Look after yourself, find time to discuss something other than school work with your children, go for a walk with them, or play a game. I’m aware that this is simple stuff, but any release from our current situation will be good for you and them. Whatever you do, don’t put unrealistic amounts of pressure on yourself to find solutions which will only become apparent over time.

We have asked all students to take some time away from their screens on Monday 1st February. Mr Wright has identified a range of activities that are focused upon clearing their heads, taking time to relax and staying healthy. They are all potentially useful for parents and carers too. We have shared those activities with students via Teams and are encouraging them to 'dare to be well.' They can be found here too. They are available for Year 9 students to use at convenient times later in the week, as they will be meeting with their teachers at different points during the day for our ‘virtual’ parents’ consultation. Please also be aware that Year 9 Options materials are available on the school website and can be found at this link. Please continue to contact us if you have any Options questions.

We will offer a weekly briefing for each year group from next week onwards and will offer a detailed overview for all parents and carers in the final week of this half-term.  There are some very important decisions coming regarding the return of students to school and ‘exam’ information for Years 11, 12 and 13. We want to make sure that you are fully aware of any important decisions that the Government or Ofqual make. On the subject of those exam years, we are very aware of how concerned you must be at present and wanted to reiterate that we will offer all of the support possible as soon as Ofqual report on their plans for March-July 2021. Try your hardest not to speculate about what will or won’t happen; speculation is very different to reported fact and will only increase anxiety.

Our remote learning survey ends today. We will take time to process the results, as we have had 652 responses and 427 detailed written comments. We will consider your views and share the findings when we have processed them. The response has been huge and we would like to thank you for participating. I hope to share the results before half-term.

A number of respondents have commented that they were unaware of the Department for Education’s laptop provision for disadvantaged families. We have shared this important information on a number of occasions and would encourage anyone struggling to contact the school; we will do all that we can to support you. In a similar way, one of our parents has very kindly shared valuable information regarding access to free Wi-Fi codes. The school has codes to enable people to join BT Wi-Fi hotspots for free. The BT Postcode tracker indicates that all of our students live in areas where codes can be shared. This is helpful for families with internet enabled devices, but that lack reliable internet access. If you would like a code please contact the school via school@durhamjohnston.org.uk marked ‘BT Wi-Fi’.

The theme of my update this week might be simplified to how people can cope with difficult circumstances. That was the theme of Mr Wright’s Holocaust Memorial Day assembly on Thursday, which focused upon a former Durham Johnston student called Isidore Newman. Isidore was Jewish and worked for the British SOE during WW2 in occupied France, before being betrayed, tortured and executed in Mauthausen Concentration Camp in 1944. His name is on the school’s war memorial and it is important that all Durham Johnston students are aware of his life, service and violent death. By understanding his story they should have a clear insight into the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism, prejudice and fascism. As a school we will always challenge such views and offer an education based upon tolerance and kindness.  Mr Wright’s assembly can be viewed here at the end of this update.

We are very fortunate to have so many talented students and I shared the sporting success of our students and PE department in last week’s update. Most regional sports clubs are unfortunately closed at present, but our students continue to be successful in difficult circumstances. We’ve received notice of an excellent example of that determination this week. Jack Crampton in Year 9 played in the Junior Northern Golf Tour last year and won the final event at Dinsdale Golf Club with a net score of 69 (3 under par). His success led to an invitation to compete in the Junior World Championship event to be held in August 2021 at the Tulfarris golf resort in County Wicklow, Ireland. Jack is to compete in the 13-15 year category against competitors from 29 other countries and his parents, very kindly, have written to us this week to share his achievements and to thank the school for the support they have offered him in terms of his personal development. It is a wonderful achievement and a good example to all about making the most of your talent. Well done Jack!

If any part of this update has struck a nerve with you, or has echoed your current feelings about parenthood, I can hopefully offer something positive too. Things are difficult at present and it is hard, as a parent or carer, not to be anxious. However, this year has taught me that young people are much more robust than we give them credit for. Whilst we might worry, they tend to get on with things as best they can. Muriel Spark was a wonderful author and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a book that everyone should read. She noted that, ‘parents can learn much from their children about how to cope with life.’ Worry is a little like speculation; we assume the worst, but things often end up being ok. Encourage your child to take some time on Monday and, if at all possible, prioritise your own well-being too.

Best wishes

Mr O’Sullivan